A new debate is being sparked this week following a piece in the Chronicle about a perennial problem for small restaurants that is an especially acute one right now as the local restaurant industry as a whole is suffering from some of its thinnest profit margins ever: no-shows. Given the ease of making reservations in the internet age and the much lower shame factor of canceling last minute via an app versus having to cancel over the phone too many diners take for granted that restaurants exist to serve them and their whims. But the era of being able to make reservations without putting down a credit card and committing to a 24- or 48-hour cancellation window to avoid a charge could be coming to an end. San Francisco may be seeing a new epidemic of inconsiderate diners who don't realize that one empty table can mean the difference of breaking even or not for a small restaurant on any given weeknight, and everyone who enjoys the privilege of making free reservations versus waiting an hour for a table should take note.
Back in 2014, Coi became the first SF restaurant to begin using a ticket-based system called Tock, first employed in Chicago, in which diners purchase "tickets" for the meals, essentially paying for them up front. Coi soon abandoned that system in favor of a return to OpenTable though they still take credit card numbers and charge $250 per guest for cancellations of less than 48 hours in advance but other SF restaurants have stuck to the ticketing model including Lazy Bear, Atelier Crenn, and the new SingleThread in Healdsburg. The French Laundry also just announced this week that it would move to tickets, which may make reservations there easier to get. It's a model that makes sense especially for high-end dining experiences with fixed prices where no-shows can cost the restaurant too much revenue in a given night.
But as critic Michael Bauer argues in a separate article, "If you go to a baseball game or concert, you buy tickets in advance. If you can't go, it's your bad luck." He adds, "We expect restaurant owners to be sympathetic to sickness or transportation woes, but have you tried arguing with the theater about returning your money because you couldn't go?"
More casual restaurants that have more a la carte options and less of a high-end expectation have a harder time, though, toeing the line between making things convenient for the customer and keeping their tables filled. Many diners over the age of 30 don't like knowing that there's going to be a 45-minute wait no matter when they show up at, say, Tacolicious or Pizzeria Delfina, and so they choose to go places that are either less popular or that allow them to reserve tables.
But if you're someone who casually makes reservations on OpenTable or another app and sometimes forgets to cancel them or worse, starts multiple accounts so you can book multiple tables and then decide where to go last-minute you may find yourself soon blacklisted by the app, or the restaurant.
OpenTable currently has a four-strike rule you may not be aware of: If you fail to show up for a reservation four times in one year, your account is terminated. But even that is pretty lenient from a restaurateur's perspective. As the Chronicle notes, Australian booking site Dimmi made waves last month when it blacklisted about 40,000 diners for being no-shows. Since the drastic move, they say no-shows across the country have dropped 25 percent.
So, please, everybody, if you're someone who goes out to eat a lot, which is pretty much 80 percent of San Franciscans, be considerate in how you book and cancel reservations. Cancel promptly, and preferably a day in advance, if you know you won't be showing up. And Bauer adds that you should also call ahead if you're going to be 15 or 20 minutes late for your table, especially when you know you're going to a busy restaurant, so that they can reshuffle tables as necessary and perhaps seat someone else who is waiting. Most of the time restaurants will hold your table anyway and, given all of the above circumstances, don't be surprised when you show up places with a reservation and still have to wait a bit to sit down, because restaurants are necessarily making the reservations windows for each table briefer to maximize their revenues and make up for no-shows and late cancelers. As Tock founder Nick Kokonas tells the Chronicle, "Overbook and have a bar to wait in. That’s the business model now.” (But restaurants that make you wait too long should probably give you a glass of wine on the house, as Bauer also notes.)